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For the Nationals, the question is who will take the fifth (spot in rotation)

Tommy Milone, far left, and A.J. Cole, far right, are among the pitchers in Nationals camp competing for a spot in the starting rotation. (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Washington Nationals commenced their Grapefruit League schedule Friday afternoon with a just a few questions to be answered about a roster that will look nearly identical to the one that won 97 games in 2017. The most prominent one may be who will claim the final spot in their starting rotation and whether the answer isn’t yet on the team.

We’re over a week into spring training and three notable starting pitchers remain on the free agent market: Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, and Alex Cobb. Each right-hander would presumably provide an upgrade over the Nationals’ in-house options to fill the vacancy. But a few hours before the competition for the spot got underway at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Friday, General Manager Mike Rizzo again emphasized the team isn’t actively engaged with any of them. Or, in Rizzo speak, they don’t have lines in the water or balls in the air.

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“We don’t. We really don’t,” said Rizzo, who had spent the previously couple days in the Dominican Republic to visit the club’s academy and attend a prospect showcase. “Like I said, we really like the group of guys we have here. We’re deep enough. We’re good enough. We’re talented enough to get to where we need to get.”

Arrieta remains the most intriguing of the possibilities because he’s probably the best of the trio, Nationals Manager Davey Martinez worked with him in Chicago, and his agent is Scott Boras, whose relationship with the Nationals runs deep.

The Nationals and Arrieta’s camp had discussions about the right-hander during the winter. Washington communicated a price it was willing to pay. Arrieta, who turns 32 next month, indicated he wanted more.

If his demands drop into the Nationals’ range, their track record shows they could still pounce. If the demands don’t, Washington could stand pat or look elsewhere if they deem an upgrade necessary.

Further complicating matters is the compensation Washington would have to surrender to sign Arrieta, whose ERA, FIP, and home run rate have increased over the past three seasons. Since they went over the competitive balance threshold last season and the Chicago Cubs gave Arrieta a one-year qualifying offer, the Nationals would need to give up their second- and fifth-highest picks in the upcoming draft and $1 million in international bonus money for the upcoming signing period.

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That’s all in addition to paying a 30 percent penalty for any money spent over the $197 million tax threshold. According to Cot’s Contracts, Washington’s payroll is already projected to leap nearly $5 million over that number.

In the meantime, determining the best in-house choice is at the top of the club’s priority list. The competition includes former top pitching prospect A.J. Cole, current top pitching prospect Erick Fedde, journeyman Edwin Jackson and veteran left-hander Tommy Milone.

Cole, 26, is the favorite after compiling a 2.70 ERA over his final seven appearances, including four starts, last season. Not having any minor league options also helps his case.

“We’re going to run the best five starters we can out there,” Rizzo said. “If A.J. is that guy, he’ll be out there. If he’s not, he’ll compete for a bullpen spot. He may have the leg up just because of the way he pitched last year down the stretch.”

The race reached a checkpoint Friday, when Milone, a longshot to claim the role, started Washington’s Grapefruit League opener against the Astros at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. He needed 26 pitches to face the minimum over two shutout innings. The Nationals went on to lose, 3-2.

Taken by the Nationals in the 10th round of the 2008 draft, the 31-year-old Milone made his major league debut with Washington in 2011 before he was traded along with Cole and two others to the Oakland Athletics for Gio Gonzalez in December 2011. He then enjoyed his best season as a major leaguer, posting a 3.74 ERA in 31 starts for Oakland in 2012.

His career, however, stalled, and he rejoined Washington after posting a 7.63 ERA in 17 outings, including eight starts, with the Milwaukee Brewers and New York Mets last season.

“I want to prove that I’m back to being the pitcher that I was before when I was here before, and back in 2012-13, that time,” Milone said. “The last couple years haven’t been the greatest, and I’m out to prove that I’m not that pitcher anymore.”

Saturday will be Jackson’s turn to make a first impression in 2018. He’ll toe the rubber against the Miami Marlins after Tanner Roark, who will also make his spring debut. Fedde and Cole will soon follow.

“They’re all capable stuff-wise,” Nationals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said. “Now it’s a matter of them going out and competing and executing, and whoever takes the bull by the horns and says, ‘I want this spot.’”

The Nationals have five weeks to figure it out — if they don’t hire someone else for the job before then.

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